Thursday, June 25, 2009


William Boyd on the Leopold Museum and the paintings of Egon Schiele. On Schiele's “Self-portrait with Head Inclined” (1912):
Most unusually, Schiele has a moustache in this portrait—the only image of him moustachioed that I can recall. Luckily for posterity, Schiele was fond of being photographed and in all the many photographs we have of him he appears clean-shaven. I don’t mean to be facetious, but Austro-Hungarian Vienna was, among everything else, the city of facial hair. Was it a mark of rebellion not to grow a beard or a moustache in those days and thus distinguish yourself from the hirsute complacent burghers and whiskered bemedalled soldiers? I think of another of Schiele’s Vienna contemporaries, another harbinger of the modern 20th century and a ground-breaker in his field, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—lean, ascetic and permanently clean-shaven, like Schiele. Does the demonic stare in this portrait, the added black stripe of the moustache, gesture towards the schizophrenic nature of Viennese society in those days before the Great War? This may be the wisdom of hindsight but another contemporary of Schiele (and of Wittgenstein and Freud) in pre-war Vienna was Adolf Hitler, then an embittered and near-destitute down-and-out, roaming the streets, living in squalid hostels, nurturing his paranoid fantasies. Twenty years later he would be chancellor of Germany.
(I am thinking I must have seen the Schiele exhibition at the Royal Academy in December 1990 - it certainly made an impression on me...)

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